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McCardell needs to find his way back

What Keenan McCardell needs, right about now, is a yellow brick road.

He needs a rescue party. He needs a new map, a sturdy flashlight and fresh advice. He needs an olive branch large enough to carve a life raft.

For a guy who has spent most of his life running routes, McCardell needs to find the one that says "escape."

After 55 days of the world's longest, silliest holdout, it is time for McCardell to swallow hard and report to work. After tossing aside nearly $300,000 worth of game checks, after all the rants and all the reports, it is time for him to seek a conditional surrender.

For the sake of his career, it is time for McCardell to search for a bridge he has not burned.

He cannot win. If you wish, you can argue about who is right or what is deserved or how this holdout should have been handled. In the NFL, however, the odds are stacked high against McCardell, against any holdout. If this stalemate shows anything, it is that McCardell cannot guilt the Bucs into giving him more money, he cannot embarrass them into trading him away, he cannot goad them into releasing him. He cannot outlast a franchise.

Fairness? When has an NFL negotiation been about fairness? NFL holdouts are about leverage. McCardell doesn't have any. If he holds out from now until doomsday, he remains the property of the Bucs.

What, then, is he to gain from withholding services?

Sure, the Bucs could use McCardell. Every time you see the receivers they are using, you think Jon Gruden needs to find new defensive tackles to run pass patterns. You can speculate as to how much McCardell may have helped in the first two games, but you can be relatively sure the Bucs wouldn't have scored less than no touchdowns.

On the other hand, there is this: The further from the playoffs the Bucs seem destined to finish, the less they need McCardell. Say, for instance, that having McCardell means they're going to win one more game this year. If it's the difference between 10-6 and 9-7, that's significant. If it's the difference between 5-11 and 6-10, why not save the money for next year's free agents?

Consider this: Last year, McCardell had a career year, and three times he caught touchdown passes late in the fourth quarter to give his team a late lead or a tie. The Bucs still finished 7-9 (and lost all three with McCardell's late heroics).

In a lot of ways, this holdout reminds you of Errict Rhett's botched negotiation back in '96. It didn't matter that Rhett deserved more money. He held out until his annoyance was larger than his ability, and his career never recovered.

How does this end? There are four possibilities:

McCardell caves in: Most NFL holdouts end in the moments before the teams start handing out paychecks. It's amazing how quickly money can melt resolve.

Give McCardell credit. He's more stubborn than most holdouts. Still, how many checks is he willing to sacrifice? Is he going to give up $2.5-million this year and $5.25-million over the next two years? It's unlikely.

Still, it would have been easier for McCardell if he hadn't been quite so noisy. A lot of holdouts leave themselves an out. For example: "I came in when the coach called me." Or "I talked to the owner, and he convinced me." McCardell hasn't done that.

The Bucs cave in: It has been a bit vexing to see just how passive the Bucs have been during this holdout. Even if they weren't going to renegotiate, it would have been wise to make a few more phone calls. If nothing else, it might have made McCardell's return easier.

Is it possible the Bucs just don't think McCardell is as good as last year's numbers? Could they think that, at 34, he doesn't have that much left?

The Bucs trade him or release him: The most amusing part of McCardell's holdout has been the periodic protests from his advisers. They will tell you how the Bucs shockingly turned down a fourth-round draft choice. They will grumble that the Bucs should just release him.

Well, bunk. If the agents think McCardell is only worth a fourth-round draft pick, well, they don't think enough of their client. You can't demand a high price on one hand and think the Bucs should settle for a small one on the other. By comparison, when Green Bay cornerback Mike McKenzie was holding out, reports say the Packers were asking for a No. 1 draft pick and a player in return.

For the Bucs, McCardell is an asset. If they can get a No. 1 or a No. 2 for him, they should talk about it. Anything else is selling him short.

We have seen the last of McCardell: Could his career really end this way? If the sides are stubborn enough, it could. McCardell is 34.

Speculation around the NFL handicaps it this way: There's a 53 percent chance that McCardell retires before returning, 23 percent he reports, 23 percent he is traded and 1 percent the Bucs give him the money.

My guess: I'd say it was 61 percent that Keenan comes back to camp, but 28 percent that when he does so, he wears Keyshawn Johnson's flip-flops to practice. That way, maybe he can annoy his way out of town, too.

Either way, the holdout started with McCardell. It will be up to him to end it.

If he doesn't believe me, he can ask Errict.